A third consecutive win against Eastern Conference competition should serve notice that the Fire are a legitimate playoff contender for those that questioned whether or not they were a "top 5" team in the division. The latest victory, a hard fought 1-0 decision over Sporting Kansas City raises the club's record to 8-5-3 and pulls them to within two points of KC in the table and to within three points of the top (DC and NY are currently at 30).
Despite a 62-38 disadvantage in possession and being outshot by KC 27-10 the club was able to withstand pressure while patiently waiting for a chance to do some damage on a counter and the result was a confidence building and impressive win. Sean Johnson's heroics played a big part in the preserving the victory but it should be noted that these are the types of results that Chicago has been lacking for much of the last two-plus seasons. Statement wins have been hard to come by and this may have been one of them. With the season nearing the half way mark the Fire may be on their way to a playoff return.
If the club can manage to have Sebastian Grazzini come back motivated and happy and is able to add the threat of a top striker things could get very interesting.
GK Sean Johnson (8) - Johnson is rounding into top form with and should easily be considered Man of the Match in this game. Five saves including a few of the spectacular variety - a diving stop of Kamara's header in the 76th and a tip away against Kamara again in stoppage time were the best. His distribution was even more selectively cautious throughout the match. The only negative was a goal kick that sailed out of bounds in the 89th minute. Johnson can be a spectacular shot stopper and this was one of those nights.
D Dan Gargan (6) - Started at left back due to Gonzalo Segares' red card suspension and did well enough to help keep KC's fast, physical attackers at bay although he played out of his natural position. Started the counter attack that led to the Fire's goal. Moved to his customary right back spot in the 78th minute and cleared a dangerous ball away in the 88th.
D Arne Friedrich (6) - His first start since returning from injury sees the Fire earn their third clean sheet of the season. With time the combination of Friedrich and Berry should be difficult to beat in the air but KC had chances on several headers that were either sent wide or defended well enough by the Fire to obstruct a clear shot. Had a decent cross served into the penalty area late in the first half. Came out in the 78th minute and was seen being attended to by trainers on the bench.
D Austin Berry (6) - A diving clearance in the 47th and another clearance in the 93rd prevented potentially dangerous balls from finding the target.
D Jalil Anibaba (7) - Although he seems to be the odd man out when Segares returns and Friedrich is at full strength, Anibaba was strong in this match particularly in the first half as KC looked to grab a lead. A clean tackle on Sapong prevented an early chance, a good pass in the 20th sprung Nyarko for an opportunity, and numerous clearances in the penalty area highlighted the night. Moved to center back in the 78th after Friedrich left the match.
M Logan Pause (6) - Sporting held a majority of the possession but much of it wasn't truly dangerous until they had to push for an equalizer. There wasn't much from Graham Zusi in this match and the Pause/Pardo combination should get the credit for it.
M Pavel Pardo (6) - Still seems a shade less effective than he was in the second half of last season. Had some issues keeping up with KC attackers in foot races but a beautiful slide tackle in the 94th kept the Fire out of danger late.
M Patrick Nyarko (6) - Didn't have as many chances as usual offensively as the Fire looked committed to sitting back and waiting for a counter. Better in combination play offensively in the first half but continued to chip in defensively in the second.
M Marco Pappa (7) - He's stepped up his game since a slow start to the season but he's been on it since late April. Pappa will finish when presented with an opportunity and the 58th minute counter after a feed from Gargan was textbook, although some lax defending from Kansas City helped the cause. A cross to Oduro in the 16th provided a great chance to score. With temperatures over 100 degrees and a match on Tuesday he was subbed out in the 64th presumably in order to keep him fresh for the Houston game.
M Chris Rolfe (6) - Got the start in the "Grazzini" role as the underneath central player but there wasn't much going forward for the Fire in the first half. Came back in the 30th minute to defend and provided a tackle to stop a Sapong chance, his intelligent layoff for Pappa on the counter in the 58th led to the goal, and a hard shot in the 91st forced Nielsen into a save. Moved to right mid in the 64th minute.
F Dominic Oduro (5) - There weren't many opportunities for Oduro other than a good look and volley in the 16th that was saved by Nielsen. A wayward cross attempt halted a chance in the 25th.
M Alex (5) - Entered in the 64th and didn't waste any time showing off some fancy footwork in the 75th minute but he followed that up with a low rolling cross/shot that was easily handled by Nielson. Did show some flashes of why people who saw him play in pre-season are excited about him though.
D Hunter Jumper (6) - Came in for Friedrich in the 78th and provided a timely stop in the 88th which could have been dangerous. Almost victimized by an amazing shot attempt from Bunbury in the 92nd minute as his post-up turn and shoot sailed inches wide of the post.
M Rafael Robayo (6) - I'm not sure how much longer he'll be around but he's come into the last two games and done exactly what they've needed him to do. After entering in the 82nd for Nyarko he provided a pass leading to Rolfe's shot on goal and even cleared a shot away in the 96th minute. One negative moment involved a bit of ball watching in the 94th that led to a Chance Myers shot attempt.
C Frank Klopas (7) - Playing on the road without Sebastian Grazzini and Gonzalo Segares seemed to be a huge task against one of the top teams in the East. The game plan worked to perfection tactically and every substitution contributed to the victory. Sporting had only lost once all year at home coming into this match so a unified team effort was required. They got it. Klopas also deserves some credit for keeping the squad focused amid the Grazzini-gate distraction this past week.
Next Up : Another Eastern Conference battle in Houston on Tuesday night